Playtime opens as an attack on modernity worthy of George Amberson Minafer, dealing with the personality-free office place populated by cubicles, to the lines of similarly dressed men on their ways home after work or the same type of men all getting into the same kind of car after their work day. There’s some great stuff about television and how, of a collection of people living in the same apartment building, it is the thing they have most in common. The film, in scenic description of the first half, sounds more like a feature article in Harper’s discussing the “American Idol” phenomenon than anything else.
The film is split into two distinct sections. The beginning, featuring Tati’s M. Hulot’s adventures in a modern office building, these adventures juxtaposed with the experiences of a young America woman in a tourist group. She and Hulot meet over and over and Tati presents her in a particular light. She sees something wondrous when everyone else is too busy to look. M. Hulot’s adventures are quite different, more a comedy of errors, with frequent mistaken identities. Then the city goes dark and turns on the lights and the focus moves to a nightclub, opening for business when it’s not at all ready. Both Hulot and the American tourist end up at the nightclub and, after the incredibly impersonal, alienated world of the first forty-five minutes, Playtime slowly becomes celebratory of people. The nightclub scene brings together all of Playtime‘s characters and lets them get to know each other. Except the television people, Tati’s abandoned them.
I’d forgotten the nightclub scene. I remembered much of the film following that long sequence, but I didn’t remember any of the actual club scene, which is odd, since it’s the most important part of the picture. It’s here Tati gets to present his case–while the nightclub staff are frantic to create that alienating environment for the characters of the first part, they hadn’t counted on M. Hulot, who innocently brings the whole thing down. Thanks to him, the construction workers are drinking with the oil millionaires and the drunks off the street are drinking with the white collar drunks. All while the nightclub staff tries to keep the place from falling apart, while it becomes obvious entropy is what the people are looking for anyway.
The end–the nightclub changing the world–becomes a celebration of modernity. We see the world through something a lot like the American tourist would see it. The beauty in the cityscape. Still, while Playtime is Tati’s finest work I’ve seen, it’s also his least accessible. It doesn’t just require patience or listening, Tati uses the entire frame to tell his story and he only gives the viewer a few seconds to adjust to the frame’s contents. The viewer has to pay real attention, or he or she will miss something important. While the nightclub scene is a little less intensive, it’s definitely an active viewing experience.
Playtime is a profound piece of work and one of the times the five hundred odd words of a Stop Button post simply aren’t enough.
Directed by Jacques Tati; written by Tati and Jacques Lagrange, with additional English dialogue by Art Buchwald; directors of photography, Jean Badal and Andreas Winding; edited by Gerard Pollicand; music by Francis Lemarque; production designer, Eugene Roman; produced by Bernard Maurice; released by Specta Films.
Starring Jacques Tati (Monsieur Hulot), Barbara Dennek (Young Tourist), John Abbey (Mr. Lacs), Tony Andal (Page Boy), Yves Barsacq (Hulot’s Friend), Valérie Camille (Mr. Lacs’s Secretary), France Delahalle (Shopper in Department Store), Erika Dentzler (Mme. Giffard), Léon Doyen (Doorman), Yvette Ducreux (Hat Check Girl), Georges Faye (Architect), André Fouché (Restaurant Manager), Michel Francini (1st Maitre D’), Jack Gauthier (The Guide), Grégoire Katz (German Salesman), Billy Kearns (Mr. Schultz), Reinhard Kolldehoff (German Businessman), Jacqueline Lecomte (Young Tourist’s Friend), Rita Maiden (Mr. Schultz’s Companion), Marc Monjou (False Hulot), Georges Montant (Mr. Giffard), Laure Paillette (1st Woman at the Lamp), Henri Piccoli (An Important Gentleman), Colette Proust (2nd Woman at the Lamp), Nicole Ray (Singer) and France Rumilly (Woman Selling Eyeglasses).